Leigh Morlock, Pattern Designer
Since moving to Cambodia, I’ve had to juggle many different responsibilities. Country Director. Creative Director. Pattern Designer. Handbag Designer. Graphic Designer. Project Manager.
Since we are launching a weaving business intent on selling to Western markets, Pattern Designer was one of the first roles I assumed. Within the first few weeks of arriving in Cambodia, even before I met our weaving staff or visited our field office, I was tasked with developing patterns for our first collection. Perhaps you can already see where this is going. Eager to please, I dug in.
Familiar with the design process, I began looking for inspiration. I collected tear sheets that were fresh, modern, global. I searched the internet for Scandinavian influenced geometrics. Stripes, dots, diamonds, birds. Painterly fabrics. Block printing. I collected and hoarded images.
I began sketching. I tried to balance simple with intricate. Bold with subtle. Geometric with pictorial. In the end, I felt accomplished. Look, I have six patterns that span the spectrum of what we want. I did it. Success!
Then, I went to the village for the first time and showed them my designs. Most were met with a simple rejection, “Cannot, impossible.” This was my first introduction to the peculiar Cambodian phrase and I hadn’t yet learned that impossible meant completely possible but very difficult. I was dumbfounded.
I went back to the drawing board. I simplified. We started with a polka dot. The red and blue dots that became the Wanderlust for Madewell collection. We perfected dots. Through the production of the dot, I asked tons of questions. Honestly, a barrage of questions.
After a few months I went back to my original designs and realized they didn’t sit right anymore. I racked my brain, thinking about what was missing. Then it hit me, Cambodia was missing. I had approached the original designs from my lens of what I know and like. The sense of place, of what makes Khmer Ikat unique, was not represented. The local color and culture was missing.
As someone who espouses a deep dedication to collaboration, this realization was devastating. There was no give and take of ideas. No melding of East and West. No push and pull.
So while I lamented my error, I also created a three-prong approach to pattern design going forward. A method that I believe will allow us to embrace Cambodia while also providing modern, globally resonating fabric.
First, I will draw inspiration from Khmer life and architecture. Photos snapped of local color, temples, vegetation, markets, wildlife, gates and homes will serve as a springboard.
Second, when possible we will modernize motifs from traditional Khmer Ikat. We will extract imagery then play with the scale, orientation and repetition to create something new.
Lastly, we will include modern designs that are Western in origin, but can be infused with the Khmer spirit.
Now, we’re on the verge of finalizing the patterns for our first collection, which will debut in the states in Fall 2011. Of the original patterns I designed, two have made it into the collection. One of the two was the pattern that first elicited the response, “cannot, impossible.” Four new patterns, one drawn directly from Kbach, one from Khmer vegetation and two that meld East and West will round out the assortment.
There have been a few recurring themes throughout this journey… I’m going to have to practice flexibility, the byproduct of learning as you go. I’m going to have to listen as much as (maybe even more than) I talk. I’m going to learn as much as I teach.